Four and a half years ago, about 12 hours after Marina gave birth for the first time, Albina was brought to her mother for the first time to learn to breastfeed. Marina was concerned that she hadn’t quite got the hang of feeding on the first try, but there would be plenty of time to try to learn. More disconcerting was her having fainted during blood tests, apparently the result of her right kidney not working properly during her late pregnancy. The dietary recommendations seemed a bit odd to me… particularly the one suggesting that she could have green apples, but not red ones (to this day, I’m still not sure of the logic behind that one).
At the time, it took almost a full day for me to compose and send off the electronic announcement that all had gone well. As in Baby Ben’s birth, congratulatory responses came back almost immediately, the first of which arrived from both future godmother Lena Hrambouskaya and Grammy Ro. A few hours later, Albina began successfully to take in milk, but her mother wasn’t yet stable enough to spend much time with her.
On the day after Baby Ben’s birth, Marina likewise had to again learn again how to negotiate teaching an infant how to latch on to her breast while in a laying position (sitting was too painful), and how to get milk flowing. She was a bit stronger during her second birth, but the first days of new motherhood are going to be a painful period for any nursing mother.
Back at home in the outside world, our 4-year-old, Albina, started to get the sniffles about the time of her brother’s birth, and this ailment had become a full-scale runny nose by the time Friday morning had rolled around. On that day, Sept. 6, I still had to make a run to Minsk to purchase presents for my wife’s 30th birthday. Besides a couple of books (gifts designated to be from the children and Babushka), I researched and found a spa that provided a treatment that was supposed to be special for new mothers, and bought a certificate for her to try it in the coming months.
When I got back to Ostrovets, the news from the hospital wasn’t all that good. Baby Ben had started to turn yellow with an excess of bilirubin in the blood. His uncle Andrey had the same condition, but, reassuringly, he still turned out healthy. By the end of Saturday, Bennie’s liver had started to catch up a bit in cleaning the bilirubin out of his bloodstream and the jaundice, apparently the normal newborn type and not Rh-factor related, started to go away. By Sunday, his body weight, which had dropped 220 grams after birth, had caught up with his birth weight and advanced the first 10 grams beyond as he began taking in milk at five minute sucking intervals (he would reach 30 grams above his birth weight, or 4.12 kg, by the time he left a day later). As with most babies, he quickly developed a routine of eating a bit and then sleeping a bit. This meant that Marina would be getting a head start on facing another exhausting parent hazard – the complete lack of sleep.
Through all the gifts of food that came with her birthday, Marina, ever more self-disciplined than her husband, maintained a strict breastfeeding-related diet found in the books she had with her, including Heidi Murkoff’s books on “What to Expect”. She forewent the more lenient state advice (apparently inspired by World Health Organization reports that were probably already a bit outdated) in favor of her English-language sources that many mothers in places like America follow, whenever they conflicted. It was a strategy that seemed to work well with Albina four and a half years ago, and appeared to work well with little Bennie.
Throughout the weekend, Marina continued to bond with our little boy, while Albina spent time with her father and Babushka. As Saturday turned to Sunday, though, our daughter’s runny nose became progressively worse. At night, it became difficult for her to sleep, and every so often, waking next to her as she sat up at night, I had to wipe her nose clean. However, she at long last figured out the concept of nose-blowing, a skill that is apparently, and I found somewhat surprisingly, a learned trait.
Despite all these minor emergencies, though, on the morning of Monday, Sept. 9, the world around Ostrovets seemed fairly normal. The day was bright and sunny, there was a ton of emails for Papa to answer, and Albina was doing her best to convey to her father the things she wanted to play with (Dora the Explorer – no not the YouTube video, but rather a game – no, not the Leap Pad, it had to be on the computer – no, not Nick, Jr., games, but the disk instead – well, if we can’t find the Dora the Explorer game disk, then maybe Charlie Brown videos will do). Meanwhile, while Babushka was outside maintaining her garden, it sort of bothered me that Marina hadn’t called in yet by 11 a.m.
It turned out that at the hospital, Marina had dealt with the battery of blood tests she and our little one needed to take to ensure that everything was still going okay. Then, the doctor-on-duty came in and told her that there were a lot of women that were being admitted today, and because of that and the fact that everything looked okay, she would be allowed to leave – and that she should get ready to do so immediately.
After I heard this news over the phone, everything became a scramble. I gathered up my things and went running to my brother-in-law Andrey’s place to take a shower, while my sister-in-law Oksana arrived to help get candy and flowers for Marina and Bennie’s departure from the hospital. Naturally, the authorities had taken this day to do maintenance on the city’s hot water supply, and I cleaned up the best I could while howling the worst curses on the engineer in charge of that project, a task it seemed to me they could have done at any other time. My brother-in-law prepared a large pot of hot water for shaving, which truly was a godsend, and he arranged a vehicle to pick Marina and our little boy up for the four block journey home (I decided I wasn’t going to argue).
Andrey’s friend Valera arrived in a rather nice Audi A6 at about 2:15 p.m., and we rushed downstairs to pile inside. Following Marina’s last-minute instructions, Andrey quickly went across the street and bought a bottle of Sovietsky Champagne for the nurses, which I was to pass along at the hospital, along with the sweets that his wife found. Their son Vlad, wanting to be around at the arrival of another male into the family, joined us on the journey to the hospital, which Valera negotiated, well, rather enthusiastically. Olive drab vehicles and the normal mid-day crowd in the center of Ostrovets flitted past rapidly as we accelerated down the roadway across the old mill pond dam toward the Regional Hospital. About 10 minutes after leaving Andrey’s front door, Valera parked in the parking lot, and we began our wait for the go-ahead to enter the hospital grounds.
Puffy clouds hovered over the hospital. Suddenly, these were joined by a huge surge of brownish smoke coming from the hospital stack, which seemed an ironic contrast, for some reason, when pictured against the old “Slava KPSS” slogan on the wall of the hospital. When the color of the smoke changed to white, Andrey joked that the hospital had elected a new Pope. I responded that it was obviously my son.
At 2:45 we went into the hospital grounds by car, and Valera parked near the side entrance. I took the gifts and flowers with me up the stairs, where we again waited outide the maternity ward. Out came the doctor, then a nurse, and then after about ten minutes wait, Marina came out with her things, which Vlad took downstairs to the car. Shortly after 3, the nurse arrived at the door with our little one. He had a tiny old man’s face that was still slightly yellowish and almost seemed doll-sized. His eyes were slowly scanning how the scene had changed around him, and ultimately rested on me. That moment became my introduction to the next Ben Angel.
I didn’t really take my eyes off him as we went home, and he didn’t really take his eyes off me either. A military parade could have been happening, complete with dancing girls in front of rockets, and I know I wouldn’t have noticed. I softly sang lyrics from Patti Smith’s “Jackson Song” to him as we approached the gate to his grandmother’s home.
At 3:15 p.m., Monday, Sept. 9, I took our little bundle through his grandmother’s front gate, and stooped down to introduce him to his big sister Albina, who seemed genuinely pleased to at long last meet her promised younger brother. This was the moment that all the books have been building her up to, and it seemed to meet her expectations. After Albina, Baby Ben went to meet Babushka, who followed a tradition of sorts that involved saying “phtu” three times, presumably a protective measure. After that, we entered the house and headed almost straight to the bedroom.
After a brief feeding, through which Albina kept checking her “What to Expect” picture books to see if everything was going as expected, we lay Baby Ben in his crib, and introduced him to his little hedgehog, his first soft toy. I called it a Lisowski hedgehog, as we know that he is descended from the Lisowski szlachta family, and they used a hedgehog as their coat of arms. He just sort of used it to focus for awhile, then began crying as he needed a burp.
An hour after we arrived, Oksana and youngest daughter Eva arrived to greet the new baby. Eva still wanted him to be a girl, but had more or less accepted that she had a boy cousin. Marina became stressed over not being used to the layout of her own home. After the maternity ward, everything seemed chaotic. She set about bringing order to everything as I went between writing this passage and watching or burping our little man. He finally went to sleep for a little while. Marina helped her mother and Oksana prepare a celebratory supper as I continued to write.
Of course, this was much less an adventure than the trip home for Albina, four and a half years ago. The car that Andrey had prepared for that trip had broken its clutch, and so it was left to Marina’s father, Iosef, to arrange a taxi. He arrived in mid-afternoon in Lida, and we reached the hospital some 90 minutes before Marina and Albina were finally released. We spent the time impatiently sitting in the waiting room as mother-and-child after mother-and-child emerged from the maternity center at the Lida Regional Hospital. Finally, after a final ritual swaddling of our daughter by the nurse on duty, Albina was presented to me, and for the first time, I was a real father.
The two hour trip home seemed to last forever. First, I was nervous that we weren’t using a car seat. Apparently, there is little concern in Belarus about accident safety, as everyone, from doctor to grandparent, insisted that babies must be swaddled and held while lying in a straight line, even if on the road. I tried not to think about this as the taxi driver navigated the icy highways between Lida and Ivye, and continued through the thawing fog-bound two-laner in the forests near Oshmyany on the way to Ostrovets. I nervously sang Edward Kaspel’s “Prithee” to our little one, who could only stand an hour without feeding before becoming unconsolable. It was to everyone’s relief when we finally arrived home, where a homecoming celebration was waiting at the kitchen table.
It’s hard to tell what the future is going to bring. Writing, predictably, isn’t bringing anywhere near the same income as engineering had, and the very night that her little brother came home, Albina’s cold got worse. But in the final analysis, we seem to be more blessed than this time last year. I’m truly thankful.